Initial Learning in the Brain: From Rules to Action

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We used fMRI to investigate the neural changes and representational dynamics associated with different learning modes during initial learning and subsequent implementation of previously acquired stimulus-response (S-R) associations. We compared instruction-based learning (INS) and trial-and-error learning (TE) via a third observation-based learning (OBS) condition. This was yoked to the TE condition and shared features with both, the INS and TE conditions. During learning, neural changes were observed in the Frontoparietal and Default Mode Networks across learning modes, consistent with a general decrease in cognitive control demand as learning progresses. INS and TE exhibited condition-specific signal changes, which we interpreted in the context of covert motor preparation during INS, and intentional action and increased cognitive control demand during early TE trials, respectively. Multivariate pattern analysis revealed individual rule information in bilateral prefrontal, premotor, and parietal cortices across learning modes. Most regions revealed consistent representations of individual S-R rules between the learning stage and subsequent implementation stage, regardless of the learning mode. This suggests that initially formed S-R rule representations guide task performance during S-R rule implementation, irrespective of how they are acquired. Finally, within the primary motor cortex, individual S-R rules were decodable during the learning stage not only when motor responses were overtly executed, as in TE, but also in the absence of overt motor execution, as in INS. This finding substantiates previous claims of covert motor preparatory mechanisms during INS.

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